MECCA // Haj has gone high-tech. The religious ritual performed 1,400 years ago by the Prophet Mohammed, and which drew believers arriving on foot and on camels for centuries, is today broadcast live through cyberspace.
“Technology is now part of Haj,” said Kamel Badawi, an engineer from Mecca who has invented an “intelligent umbrella” with a Palestinian colleague, Manal Dandis.
Among its features, the umbrella has a fan powered by solar energy.
Pilgrims are also walking around with arms outstretched to broadcast their Haj live to family and friends by mobile phone.
Others have their eyes fixed on prayers they have downloaded.
It is a dramatic change that seems irreversible. Until recently, cameras were not even allowed into the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site which draws close to two million faithful for the Haj.
From clothing advice to diabetic information, all sorts of support is available to pilgrims online through websites and applications. Air tickets can be bought online. Souvenir photos are uploaded, and imams dispense guidance via the internet.
As soon as Abdelhadi Zuraan, 27, and his wife had set foot in Saudi Arabia, they downloaded an official Saudi Haj app.
The Jordanian couple, based in South Korea, have been regularly using the app during the initial steps of their pilgrimage.
They photographed themselves near the Grand Mosque and sent the pictures directly to their families.
Hazem Hamdi, 39, from Cairo, never lets his cellphone leave his hand.
“We learned the rituals before leaving home but, at any time, we can retrieve them with different applications,” he said.
For researcher Shahed Amanullah, “the Haj is often likened to a personal conversation with God”.
Technology has allowed pilgrims “to share this conversation with family and friends in realtime”, he said.
Modern conveniences, however, could be seen to have their drawbacks.
“Pilgrims of the past were exhorted to exhibit patience in response to the Haj’s physical ordeals”, including long marches under in the hot sun, Mr Amanullah wrote in an essay.
Today, the interior of the Grand Mosque is air-conditioned. Giant fans with water sprays cool the exterior.
Pilgrimage routes through steep mountains are now eased with escalators. There is even a train to move pilgrims from site to site.
Mr Amanullah said the modern pilgrim’s patience was now tested by “a constant cacophony of ringing mobile phones and visual distractions with familiar signage for western brands”.
It can prove difficult to pass through the groups of pilgrims as they pose for photos on their phones.
At each sacred stop, photos, videos and hashtags are shared on social media.
Technology can also have clear benefits, such as the umbrella developed by Mr Badawi and Mr Dandis.
To the simple parasol they added buttons, USB ports and solar cells.
The result is what they call the first umbrella to turn the sun into fresh air.
Solar energy powers a fan to refresh the pilgrims, while the umbrella handle can also charge a telephone and provide GPS data.
Identifying their location is one of the pilgrims’ main concerns, said Mr Badawi.
He has spent decades volunteering to accompany Muslims from the four corners of the world around the city of his birth.
To help them find their way through the maze of streets and alleys of temporary barricades designed to direct the flow of pilgrims, the two engineers also developed a phone app.
Wussul, or “arrival” in Arabic, is an interactive application that lists roads that traditional GPS does not recognise, Mr Badawi explained.
“It will also permit, when we have finalized it, for groups to find their members if they ever get lost in the crowd,” he said.
Source: Agence France-Presse